We don’t exactly have a fashion correspondent here at Hidden Fashion History, but we DO have a helpful little birdie in New York City who can come help out when a wonderful exhibit pops up, and I just can’t make my way to New York. She’s the same connection who can come in handy when an Ann Lowe dress you’ve just bought is WAY too small for your own waist and you’d like to see it on a person—everyone needs a big sister!
So, my big sis took the pictures, and along with that, there’s this article from Women’s Wear Daily–— that’s a help because it will fill in one important thing you’ll be missing here—exhibit text–my apologies to the curator, Colleen Hill, because objects are just one part of an exhibit—exhibit labels are everything— and as a museum professional I know how much work it takes to shape and present an exhibit’s story. But I think we’ll all enjoy getting a closer look at some of the 80 objects in this exhibit, and if you are lucky enough to get to FIT before the show closes in April, drop me a line and let me know what it was like in person!
Ellen Stewart. It can be a bit daunting to think of what people could have accomplished during the 20th century if the world had been a bit more like it is right now. Let’s take Ellen Stewart, for instance.
Five years ago, when I was looking for information about Ann Lowe’s work at Saks Fifth Avenue for my Master’s thesis, another black designer’s name began to pop up: Ellen Stewart. You may find some writers crediting Ann Lowe as the first African American designer to head a department at Saks Fifth Avenue—I’d proudly written something like that in an early draft of my thesis and had to cross it all out after finding out about Ellen Stewart. She was a dress designer with her own department at Saks in the 1950s—instead of ball gowns, she designed daywear and cocktail dresses and she sold them in her own department at Saks Fifth Avenue’s flagship store. She also sold dresses to other high-end New York department stores—Just like Ann Lowe and Wesley Tann, Ellen sold dress designs to Neiman Marcus, I. Magnin and Bergdorf Goodman.
This detail is especially interesting to me, because it suggests that there were a number of designers of color during this period who were quietly breaking the color line at the major department stores of the time. The history of this work has not been well documented–and unfortunately, the records kept by department stores–especially independent department stores from the 1950s and 1960s that have shut down, or were folded into other monster stores—I’m looking at you, Macy’s–were not preserved either.)
In 2006, Jerry Talmer of the Villager interviewed Ellen about her two careers: Starting as a fashion designer and then opening her own experimental theater group La Mama The entire interview is worth reading, but this is the section about her Saks Fifth Avenue time. Ellen arrived in New York to take fashion school classes—because she could not attend fashion school in Chicago (Even with Mrs. Adlai Stevenson offering to pay her tuition!) without agreeing to some demeaning guidelines to keep her from coming into contact with the white students. So, she came to New York and found a career in fashion:
“Monday morning the man on the elevator told me I could ride all the way downtown on a bus. Went downtown, looking for a job, didn’t get it, saw this big church across the street from a big store. Went into the church, which was St. Patrick’s Cathedral, said a prayer, came out and went into the store, which was Saks Fifth Avenue. I didn’t know what Saks Fifth Avenue was.
“The salesgirls wouldn’t tell me anything. An elevator girl told me to go up to Personnel, on the 8th floor. While I was there, Edith Lances, who had a whole department for custom-made brassieres and corsets, came looking for a trimmer to cut the threads off the brassieres. I could do that. She took me down to the 4th floor and put me to work.
“In those days, in Saks Fifth Avenue, the coloreds had to wear a blue smock, but at lunchtime you could take the smock off. Rumors were flying all over Saks that an exotic colored model was going around the store wearing Balenciaga clothes. We were all trying to figure out who this model was. Turned out it was me. Then all these white women started to ask what I was wearing. I was afraid of them …
“Edith Lances thought I should have a better job and took me to Sophie Gimbel, who owned the store. Sophie Gilbert (sic) said: ‘No niggers in my department.’ Yes, she really said that. So Edith Lances decided I was going to be her executive designer … [She] said: ‘You take off the smock, and from this day on you are Miss Ellen.’ At that time in Saks, Negroes were not allowed to be called Miss or Mister either. Well, they set me up in a workshop, a floor of my own, my own department, staffed by 15 concentration-camp survivors from Eastern Europe … [but] the coloreds demanded that I put the smock back on and not be called Miss.”
Ms. Stewart died in 2011 and again, someone (and by someone, I mean… well… me) has missed out on an amazing history project. Imagine interviewing and writing about the fashion careers of Ellen Stewart and Wesley Tann. It would have been an incredible article, and would have added a great deal of depth to my understanding of the black experience in the New York fashion industry.
Sometimes a historian misses out. There may be archival materials worth looking into for a future project, though.
And fortunately, there are a number of articles around the internet about Ellen’s theater work—and her fashion career is mentioned a bit too. I hope this brief profile has encouraged you to take a minute to explore a few of these articles:
The Museum at FIT’s Fairy Tale Fashion exhibition.
It is only up for a few months—and I’m hoping that I can get to it —but I’m also hoping that YOU can get to it if you are close to NYC. My big sister is going this weekend—and also going to a related lecture and tour—she lives in NYC and gets to go to everything all of the time and you may be able to tell that I am typical little sister jealous about this!
At the Museum at FIT, Associate Curator, Colleen Hill selected 80 objects to interpret classic fairytales and in the process she created an astounding scene of color, sparkle and texture.
Just from the preview on the FIT website, you can find an interesting mix of couture, historic costume and cutting edge fashion (Cinderella’s slipper with a 3 D printed twist!). I work with historic costumes at work, so it’s especially fun to see that they’ve selected some garments from the 18th century—these are the types of pieces that you do not get to see displayed very often. And the color of this cape is stunning! If you have never taken a close look at 18th century velvet, you are in for a treat!
Because of the fragile nature of textiles, fashion exhibits can have very short exhibition windows. I am hoping to get to this before it closes in April.
(I will report back if I make my way to see this!)
The model on the cover of the 1952 Fall/Winter Lane Bryant catalog is all smiles. She is standing with a hand raised to her mouth and shouting to her friends (who are all out of the camera’s range) in a buttoned, full-length camel hair coat:
“Calling All Chubbies!”
The words “Calling All Chubbies” appear in bold script beside her. Inside, each illustrated plus-sized model is introduced as a “Chub.” The text underneath an illustration of a blond high school student in a tweed coat reads, “Let it snow, let it blow, Chub’s snug in her fur-collar storm coat!”
More than sixty years later, it is difficult to imagine that this text was intended for the approving eyes of teenagers and their parents. Why would a business that was created out of a female designer’s respect for women with unique wardrobe needs select advertising copy with derogatory text?
Although a high number of women in the United States wear plus-sized clothing, it may be surprising to know that the ready to wear plus-sized clothing business has only existed since the early 20th century. As a pioneer in this type of women’s clothing, Lane Bryant has produced print advertising for its plus-sized clothing lines since 1917. This early start provides a substantial view of trends in plus-sized advertising. The most notable differences from decade to decade can be observed in the terminology, images and narrative voice used in each advertisement.
Following ninety years of Lane Bryant print advertisements and catalog pages also gives a unique view of the changing climate of the women’s clothing industry and its treatment of the issues faced by women who were struggling with physical conditions that were not socially acceptable. The advertisements touch upon themes of shame, change and concealment while eventually shifting towards acceptance, and the reclaiming of personal power, self-esteem and sensuality.
Lane Bryant opened for business in 1904 as a small dressmaking boutique run by Lena Bryant in Manhattan. Dressmaking was a common career choice for businesswomen in the early 20th century, and Bryant’s boutique offered simple and otherwise unremarkable daywear in traditional sizes.
Bryant’s first attempts at ‘non-traditional’ sized clothing were aimed towards expectant mothers. At some point during that first year, Bryant took a customer order for an outfit that would be “presentable but comfortable to wear on the street” during pregnancy.[i] The dress Bryant created may have been the earliest ready to wear maternity dress available in the United States. The custom order was so successful that Bryant made the design available as a ready to wear piece in her shop. The dress featured, “an elasticized waistband and an accordion-pleated skirt.”[ii] The comparatively modest price of 18 dollars made the garment accessible to the middle class. Lena’s designs sold more than $50,000 of clothing a year by 1910, an especially impressive figure when the state of maternity advertising during this period is considered.[iii]
The most popular designs in Lena Bryant’s shop were the ones that could not be properly advertised because of the modest social climate of the day. Pregnancy was considered to be a condition society preferred to keep private at the time, and the first advertisement for Bryant’s maternity wear line would not appear until 1911 in the New York Herald. The first line of the advertisement read, “Maternity wardrobes that do not attract attention”[iv] The maternity items in Bryant’s shop sold out the day after the first ad appeared.[v]
Around 1917, Bryant returned to her customer’s requests for inspiration for new designs and in response to letters with questions like, “it seems as if some way should be found for us to walk into a store and buy comfortable and also stylish clothes as easily as our slimmer sisters do?” Bryant developed a new clothing line for “stout” women.[vi] Bryant’s second husband and business partner, Albert Malsin researched the market to determine the long-term viability of a “stout” clothing line by comparing the measurements of thousands of previous customers with measurement figures taken from the records of life insurance companies.
Malsin determined that “stout” customers made up at least 40% of the women who would purchase ready made clothing.[vii] Sales of the plus-sized line were successful and once more, Bryant’s ideas were leading the market and serving a wide audience that had never been able to purchase ready to wear clothing.
Advertising clothing in larger sizes was more acceptable than advertising maternity wear, although the shame felt by overweight women became an issue. At the same time Lane Bryant catalogs were “Calling All Chubbies” they were also producing copy inside the store that demonstrated sensitivity to the feelings of their customers. An article in a 1951 advertising journal, Kiplinger Magazine describes a window banner used in Lane Bryant stores that winter. “A window sign at Lane Bryant doesn’t say, “New silk prints for spring, sizes 38 to 60,” but “New silk prints for spring in your very own size.” A lot of difference.”[viii] This delicate text suggests that the terms “chubby,” “chubbies” and “chub” were also acceptable during this period.
After the first 1911 advertisement in the New York Herald, Lane Bryant earned the freedom to advertise their line of maternity wear broadly. A 1912 advertisement in Good Housekeeping features lengthy text about the value of the company’s maternity wear, “unequalled in style and hygienic excellence.” The illustration of a slender young woman in a tightly belted afternoon dress suggests that the public climate for such advertising did have its limits.
A 1913 trade advertisement in Cloak and Suit Review announcing the new fall and winter wholesale line states, “The universal demand for LANE BRYANT garments has prompted the establishment of this exclusive wholesale department.” The notice assured retailers that “the LANE BRYANT MATERNITY MODELS differ outwardly in no way from the most fashionable styles for regular wear and are made in all materials from a simple wash dress to an elaborate evening gown.”
The message advertised directly to the customer that year gave a similar message promising that, “attractive models in fashionable materials,” were “designed to form a well balanced figure and expand as desired. Our assortment for this purpose embraces everything for the smart wardrobe.” This catalog was titled, “W Expectations and Styles.”
In 1914, Lane Bryant worked around the controversial issues created by showing their products in use by simply pairing a pen and ink drawing of their Maternity Skirt with simple text. “Maternity Attire. Simplicity of Attire becomes an absolute necessity for the young mother in anticipation.” They announced, “As originators of this specialty we boast a thorough knowledge of the figure and its needs at this time.”
Their 1917 Maternity Corset advertisement claimed to “assure the health of the infant” while creating “the long waisted effect that makes the change imperceptible.” The photograph is notable because it appears to show a woman in the early stages of pregnancy wearing the product.
In 1919, an advertisement in Mothers Magazine encouraged “expectant mothers” to write for this “beautiful style book” with a cheerful advertising style which would be used again in an advertisement for their 1940 Maternity stylebook. The1 940 advertisement clearly shows pregnant women on the cover of the catalog, along with a small illustration of an actual infant. This may have been one of the earliest advertisements to show both the pregnant woman in her condition and the end result of the condition.
The public’s impression of pregnancy appeared to be shifting by the 1950s. A more open or daring advertising campaign on behalf of Lane Bryant might have been expected. Lucille Ball presented an historic public pregnancy on I Love Lucy in 1953. The tone of a 1954 advertisement however steps away from this progress and continues to broadcast the social delicacy implied by the condition of pregnancy. The ad promises the “Mother to be” that “Nobody-will-know maternity fashions” can be found at Lane Bryant.
Maternity wear was discontinued by Lane Bryant at some point during the late 1960s or early 1970s. Although it was financially successful, new management at decided to focus their company’s resources on the most profitable products, the plus-sized clothing line.[ix]
Plus Sized Clothing
“Designing models for women who require extra sizes is an art in itself” Lane Bryant announced in a 1919 Advertisement in the May 31 Reform Advocate. Bryant promised “Individualized Apparel for Stout Women.” Another advertisement published that year in Good Housekeeping features an illustration of a “stout” woman sitting in what appears to be a somewhat troubled pose and explains, “Your appearance is more a matter of clothes than a matter of actual weight.” Lane Bryant promised that their clothes were, “cleverly designed to reduce the apparent size” making the wearer “appear smaller by pounds” The main goal of this 1919 wardrobe is concealment, not style and not comfort.
An advertisement in the March 1921 Ladies Home Journal features another stylish “stout” woman and states the promise of supplying “New York and Paris fashions” and “Ultra modish clothes with slenderizing lines.”
In 1923, a group of 3 “stout” women with very realistic body shapes are shown around the simple advertising copy, “Dress fashionable. Look Slender.”
Lane Bryant continued to broadcast this message of providing a slenderizing modern wardrobe throughout the 1930s and 1940s, although the women used in these ads appear to be the same size as a modern (21st century) size 12. The 1943 advertisement for the latest “Stout Woman Style Book” shows a woman in a rayon day dress and another in a gabardine twill slack suit. Both have full faces, but average sized bodies.
These new designs are guaranteed to “Outsmart Nature!” and allow the women to “Look slimmer! Lovlier and smarter!” It is possible that the artist was assigned with the task of showing the effect that a Lane Bryant customer could hope to achieve with her new wardrobe, instead of the former approach of illustrating a woman of plus size in a dress from the line.
The first reference to “Chubbies” appears to show up in the early 1950s. The terms seems to be a “fun” term coined by the marketing team at Lane Bryant to refer to their younger line. Another teen line, the “Junior Plenty” line was also available.[x]Surprisingly, the use of the term “chubby” was created to foster a sense of community among the younger customers at Lane Bryant.
This effort was described in Kiplinger Magazine in 1951:
“A big part of the crusade to make Lane Bryant customers feel as if they belong to a large club is a wide-spread public relations program…32,500 children have been enrolled in Chubby Clubs all over the nation. They attend meetings, parties and fashion shows and receive a bi-monthly newspaper called the Chubby Club News. It contains fashions for fat girls and such features as the autobiography of a movie star titled, “I was a Chubby.”[xi]
With this intention in mind, it is possible to see that the advertisement in support of the “Free Chubby Style Book” was intended to be a positive catalog for children who had ‘figure problems’. Although the girls were “too chubby to fit into regular sizes,” they could come to Lane Bryant and get the latest styles and look just like their ‘regular sized’ friends without paying more for their special sizing.
The young women in the “Calling All Chubbies” catalog are presented in the same “fun” way. It is unclear how long the “chubby” campaign lasted in stores, although it became a term used throughout the industry until at least the mid 1970s. Viewing this campaign from a modern perspective, it is surprising to have not found any indication of a backlash from customers requesting a change in terminology. “stout” seems to be more sensitive than “chubby,” and it is interesting to note that “stout” was also dropped at some point, when Lane Bryant and other clothing stores switched to more a more modern approach.
Lane Bryant of the late 20th Century suggested a quest for self-confidence, acceptance and the power of personal style. A 1978 advertisement in Jet Magazine is notable for the use of a new tagline, “You don’t have to be Thin to look terrific.” The model is a stylish and very modern thirty something in a 3-piece suit. She displays a sense of confidence and sensuality that is not present in the earlier examples. The new catalog announces “500 terrific new fashions that feature “size 8” styling in Large and Half Sizes.”
The message at Lane Bryant in 2011 builds upon that 1970s sense of “terrific!” A new confident energy is introduced that is a complete turn away from the 1919 promise of “making the wearer appear smaller in pounds.” In an online banner advertisement a stylish, young and definitely plus-sized woman is dressed in a silk blouse with a low V-neckline and a stylishly cropped black jacket. She glances coyly over her right shoulder. The words printed beside her read, “bold. modern. you.” This woman is no different than a “traditional-sized” woman and Lane Bryant is there to give her the stylish and even sexy clothing choices she is looking for. No sense of shame is being broadcast through this photo. The model is not there to “slenderize her appearance,” she is not even being reminded of a need to lose weight or appear to be “as terrific” as a “thin” woman. She isn’t being called upon to become a member of a special “Chubby Club.” The modern Lane Bryant woman is as confident, as beautiful, as “terrific” as anybody else simply because she is able to select fashionable clothing pieces that allow her to be herself.
The commercial linked below is from 2015 and when you consider where Lane Bryant’s advertising was 100 years earlier? What an amazing step forward.
Historian’s note: Many of the advertisements listed here pop up when searching through Google Books—-that’s why you’ll see the tell-tale bright yellow highlighting over related search terms in each ad. The blue highlighting on some of the other images indicates results from a Google Newspaper search (back in the days when Google was committing resources to an archival newspaper project) The newspaper project was stopped, but Google Books is still a fantastic source for magazine advertising from the early 20th century. A more tech-savvy blogger would know how to remove those colorful (and distracting!) highlights, but since I can’t figure out how to remove them, at least I can explain why they are there.
 Compared to the cost of a custom made dress from a dressmaker. 18 dollars was still an expensive dress for the average American family at this time.
 Upon request, Lane Bryant would ship its packages in plain brown paper wrapping without any kind of company identification. “They Sell to Bashful Customers.” Kiplinger Magazine, May 1951, 16.
 Plus sized girls clothing lines were referred to as “Chubby” and Boys lines were “Husky” in popular department store catalogs like Sears and J.C. Penney throughout the 1970s, and a clothing line named “Chubettes existed in the 1950s and 60s.
[i] Lena Bryant Malasin: Fashion Revolutionary.” http://www.ajhs.org/scholarship/chapters/chapter.cfm?documentID=283